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Five days in Istanbul

Five days in Istanbul
via British & Lufthansa First Class
May 2010

Mrs. SFO and I are off to Istanbul this week and I decided to use our 2-4-1 Chase BA miles for the SFO-LHR leg, the BA strike notwithstanding. Even though I had a *A back-up reservation including LX from ORD-ZRH, dinner at Maze and fifth row seats to Tuesday's Thriller Live won out at the last minute over a double connection and I decided to stick with BA. Surely, BA wouldn't short change First Class service, would they? OMG, how wrong I was. What a huge disappointment, and not just related to the strike.

Even though I OLCI'd at home, we stopped at the First check in counter for new BPs and doc check. Security was a breeze as the Premium lane was open with only a handful ahead of us.

Strike or not, the only redeeming feature about the SFO Terraces Lounge is direct boarding from the lounge to the jetway. Spartan entrance, small First Class lounge with the same limited selection of serve-yourself food and beverages set-up as in the Business class lounge. Does BA really think that First pax are craving smoked salmon/boursin and ham/pickle/cheese sandwiches? I never thought I would say this, but UA's IFL at SFO is infinitely superior.

The First Class portion of Terraces...

Our 744 from the First Class lounge...

The Club World portion of Terraces...

At T-40, the lounge dragon came into the lounge and announced boarding which was through a door opposite the check-in desk, directly from the lounge to the top of the jetway. FA greeting at the door of our 744 was pleasant although lacking personal greeting or interaction, understandable with a short-staff.

BA284
SFO-LHR
May 24, 2010
747-400
Seats 1AK

While I originally booked Mrs. SFO in 1K, I could get no closer than 4A. However, the kind gentleman in 1A (thank you London Dude!) insisted on switching seats with me so we could sit together. And what an absolute treat to be in 1AK, the two best seats in what otherwise is a pretty tight and crowded 14 seat cabin.

What a far cry from SQ...

Since there was no FA around (which presumably was due to lighter strike-related FA staffing levels), I hung our own coats and jackets, and those of a couple of other pax. Pre-departure drinks were offered and I opted for champagne. Silly me, I asked the FA what champagne he had just served me.

What I enjoyed most about those two seats is the number of windows and ability to view forward. To an obsessed FTer, it doesn't get much better than 1A and a late sunny afternoon taxi and take-off from SFO.

And our flying companion today. Gotta love the "No way BA/AA" emblazoned on VS planes.

Take-off from 28L over the Pacific with a turn right over the GG bridge, affording a great view of city.

Post-departure drink, my G&T with cashews...

About 20 minutes later, our senior FA Conrad stopped by to present us with... our menu. Unbelievably there was one single menu for the entire cabin, a xeroxed sheet of paper, the galley master menu, marked with quantities on hand and selections by seat.

And our wine list, hand-written on a Parc 55 Hotel note pad page. One of our FA's posed for this memorable photo. Apparently I didn't realize that Gate Gourmet had also gone on strike.

Dinner time and we were presented with... a Business Class set up! Yes sirree, starter, napkin/utensil roll and desert all at once.

Our elegant BA First Class salt and pepper shakers...

Heirloom Tomato and Mozzarella starter, actually quite tasty...

Some type of overcooked beef cut, drowning in an oily, buttery liquid...

Which I subsequently plated so I didn't have to eat it like soup. But I did eat most of the it, since I didn't think I'd have other options...

Waiting for someone to remove my glasses...

Still waiting...

Just before shut-eye and some heavy turbulence, a beautiful view and one of my favourite movies...

Breakfast was a tray with fruit and bread. I guess coffee is what BA meant by a "hot element" in "a second lighter meal with a hot element suitable to the time of day will be served at your seat."

In summary, what a disappointment. Certainly the strike contributed to my negative BA opinion, but even without the strike, I can't think of putting BA in the same category of 5-star carriers like LH or SQ. Trying to squeeze 14 seats into the pointy end of a 744 is simply ridiculous. The number of seats and the angle result in very narrow and not particularly comfortable seats. There is no cubby hole storage space around your seat (unlike LH) which means that the counter between the seat and windows winds up looking like a messy desk. I couldn't find any power source other than the Empower outlet which did not function consistently.

Although youFIRST London refused to talk to me (apparently I'm not the right nationality), BA-US has so far agreed to refund half of my miles after I told them I was not at all interested in flying the return LHR-SFO flight. Fortunately I was able to find two First seats on LX's newly outfitted ZRH-ORD 333, so even with a connection to a four hour UA domestic flight, I will have a much better experience.

Even before the BA strike, BA's coach seating passed off as Business didn't stand a change against TK's 50"+ pitch sleeper seats. And at only $1,300 RT quite a bargain for European J travel. For Business Class pax, a very pleasant check in experience at T-3. With a throng checking in for Y, we were the only pax at the J counter and efficiently processed by an attractive TK agent, who volunteered that we could use the London Lounge.

After a short and very efficient security process with remarkable friendly security agents, we headed for the London Lounge, recommended by our TK check-in agent. Apparently the main *A lounge for AC and SK, the two level lounge is quite comfortable and pleasant, and conveniently located right next to our gate 11.


 

While Mrs. SFO settled in to read, I headed out to explore potentially greener pastures, specifically the SQ Silver Kris lounge that we'll be using in September. Pleasant lounge dragon that welcomed me and in the course of our conversation indicated that SQ had no plans to add another 380 to LHR service by September. Oh well, still hoping for a back door First Suite on our upcoming RTW.

As we were about to leave for Gate 11, the monitor indicated a last minute gate change, to a now distant Gate 30.

 

TK1980
LHR-IST
May 26, 2010
11:25A-5:15P
A340-300
Seats 2JK

After a long trek, we arrive at T-20 to a pretty disorganize gate situation, featuring a long unmarked queue blocking the corridor and a shorter unmarked queue. Proving at least for a few moments that mama didn't raise no fool, we went to the short queue.

As it turned out, the gate check in was only for entry to the gate seating area itself, which slowly filled to capacity. Apparently, our 11h25 departure time is only a suggested time.

Hilarious and chaotic boarding, made even worse by a boarding call for an AC flight at adjacent gate 32. Loud AC PA announcement from Gate 32 spilled over to our Gate 32 where most people thought that the call for passengers with small children, Executive First, Super Elite, Elite and *G was for our flight. At least it cleared out our seating area.

Once the GA was ready to begin boarding, she couldn't get the PA to work, so she resorted to shouting out "families with small children, those needing extra time and Business Class passengers". Pretty much the entire gate area rushed the door, prompting the guy sitting beside me to joke that it resembled lthe crowd ready for the bulls in Pamplona.

Boarding through 2L let us turn left and leave the unwashed masses. Spacious, pleasant looking though dated J cabin. But so much better that the alternative BA coach-seating J class rip off.
Reasonable comfortable although somewhat worn angled lie flat.

Although the prominent placement of the barf bags was amusing...

As was the shoe storage space, assigned to a specific seat.

Other than an FA took hanging jackets, there was absolutely little FA-pax interaction. Perhaps it was the full 34/34 cabin but no PDB was offered. A newspaper cart with a full complement of newspapers was rolled down the aisle and offered.

After take-off, an impressive 4 FAs sprung into action at the front of the cabin. Although never have I seen so many FAs expending so much energy and accomplishing so little. Much of that energy was expended setting up the front of cabin bar, with FA's bringing bottles, cans, glasses, garnishments, etc..., seemingly one piece at a time from the galley. As there was no interaction between FAs and pax, it was unclear whether this was a self-serve bar or merely a FA work area.

25 minutes after take off, with no beverage service but a now fully stocked front-of-cabin bar, 4J decided to get a couple of beers. OK, now I get it. I went up to pour ourselves a couple of Coke Lights. But no one else followed, presumably content to either go dry or wait for the FAs to start beverage service.

One of the funniest cabin flower arrangement I have seen, foil wrapped wilting flowers in a foil wrapped "vase". Apparently someone forgot to add water, or they've been there for a few days.

30 minutes after take-off and bar set up, our inflight service begins with hot towel, followed by a paper placemat (upside down), set up tray and menu, all with not a word spoken.
After all of the above, beverage service was finally offered, except of course for 4J and I who had already taken matters into our own hands.

The chicken starter was reasonable tasty, but the marinated green beans horrendous.

Next up, our cart returned with hot entree choices. The artichoke ravioli, although dry and probably loaded seven hours earlier in IST, was quite tasty, especially when washed down with Turkish beer EFES. The profiterole was excellent.

Tea, coffee, liqueur service followed with periodic passes through the cabin to top up drinks.

The IFE was quite dated and slow, with the movie selection featuring few current titles. Moving map worked. All in all, a reasonably pleasant experience and far superior to our BA Euro Club coach seating on our late 2008 LHR-ATH flight. IST arrival was pleasant as our TA had booked the VIP arrival service. We were met at the gate by a lovely VIP rep and a porter. We were whisked by golf cart to Visa and Passport controls, jumping the queue in both locations. Quite a bargain at something like $60.

We decided to split our five nights between the urban city Park Hyatt and the riverside Kempinski Cyrinan Palace

Park Hyatt Istanbul

Beautiful hotel.  Our Spa King Suite

view

Attractive terrace bar.

 

It was a toss up between the Cirigan Palace or the Four Seasons, both ideally located on the beautiful Bosphorus removed from the hustle and bustle of central Istanbul.

Our reasonably priced one bedroom Bosphorus Suite.

Our view.

Lunch outdoors at the Gazebo.

Dinner later at the beautiful old palace building.

We got to see a lavish Turkish wedding ceremony. 

On a gorgeous evening, walking back to the main hotel building.

We decided to walk from the Ciragan Palace to the beautiful Four Seasons for lunch and to check it out. 

We enjoyed spectacular weather on our three full days in Istanbul.  Some highlights of our stay starting with the beautiful Blue Mosque.

Topkapi Museum.

Lunch stop.

And a rooftop dinner on a glorious evening overlooking Istanbul.

The breathtaking Chora Church, which dates back to the 5th century.

Hagia Sophia.

Exploring the Bosphorus.

Our Bosphorus cruise to the Black Sea.  One of the most amazing things was the cleanliness of the Bosphorus.

On our final night, pre dinner drinks at the hotel's cigar bar and lounge.

Before catching a water taxi over to Asia to dinner.

We loved Istanbul, one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

 

What originally started as a simple BA 2-4-1 miles First Class SFO-LHR-SFO with paid TK Business LHR-IST-LHR was quickly changed after our horrendous BA First experience on last week's outbound SFO-LHR. It was so bad that I cancelled the return BA flight and BA agreed to refund 1/2 of my miles to my BA account... to be used in future on CX. 

Once in IST, I called AC Aeroplan (thank you Skype!!) and booked the best of slim pickings... a double connection but including ZRH-ORD on LX's new 333. Luckily at T-2, LH opened two award seats on the MUC-SFO flight... cutting nine hours from our travel time. In the process I found an amazing deal for NA residents starting award travel x-Europe. I used 140K miles and booked a double stop-over ticket which yielded both TATL and TPAC First Class round-trips... our IST-MUC-SFO leg plus SFO-NRT-SFO next April and then one way SFO-ZRH-CDG next May.

Our local IST tour provider introduced me to PrimeClass, a great VIP airport service. On arrival last Wednesday, our VIP hostess and porter met us at the gate with golf cart and whisked us to visa purchase and passport control, jumping the queue in both cases, then coordinating hand-off to our limo driver. On our return on Monday, our limo driver coordinated our IST departure with PrimeClass and the same lovely VIP hostess met us curbside at the International terminal. She escorted to the VIP door of the terminal and our private security area where we were the only pax. After security, a porter joined us, although a bit unnecessary since we only had two small carry-ons and backpack/purse, for the short walk to the First Class LH check-in counter, where again we were the only pax.

Pleasant LH First check-in agent efficiently processed our Boarding Passes, not quite sure why I had selected 2D and 2K, two of the three open seats (the other 1K) on our MUC-SFO 346. I'll take my chances swapping seats once on board. What moron solo pax would select 2G when 2K was open anyway?

After check-in, we walked the short distance to passport control, where we jumped the queue of about 100 people by entering our own private lane and were processed by a private VIP customs agent. On the other side of passport control, our hostess and porter met us with a golf cart. We covered the seemingly 1/2 mile distance to the lounge area in a couple of minutes.

With a LH First BP and my CO *A Gold card, we had our choice of three lounges. The VIP service gives one access to The Millenium Lounge, which LH uses for Business Class and non *A Gold First pax. After the LH check-in agent had confirmed that my *A Gold and F BP gave us access, our first stop was the TK First Class Lounge. Wow, pretty disappointing and in even worse than the BA First Class lounge at SFO. It was essentially a poorly ventilated large closet. Very limited selection of cookies, biscuits and drink, and a clueless agent. Only three seating clusters (each of which had at least one person) and three small two-top dining tables. Now a lounge aficionado, Mrs. SFO gave the "get me out of here" eye and we headed across the hall to the Millenium Lounge... much more spacious with a large selection of food and beverages although all in the snack variety.

With an hour to go before our hostess would return to escort us to the gate, I decided to leave Mrs. SFO to read her book and head out on my own, to buy a book and then do what any obsessed FTer would do... check-out some more lounges.

I returned to the TK and *A Gold First Class Lounge and snapped a few pics of the now empty lounge...

Also on the upper level across the hall from both the TK First and Millenium Lounges was the HSBC Lounge. I walked in and confidently showed her my AA Executive Platinum Card... only to told no, no, not AAdvantage Platinum, HSBC Advantage Platinum. OK silly me, I misread the same font Advantage Platinum for AAdvantage Platinum on the sign by the door.

The lounge dragons and I shared a laugh, then let me in anyway to take some photos.... most likely thinking what kind of a fool wants to take pictures of an airport lounge.